A retired astronaut, a wealthy adventurer and two Saudi astronauts will be launched to the space station
Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut with 665 days in space and 10 spacewalks over three stays aboard the International Space Station, is poised to build on her legacy as one of the consensus “GOATs” — the greatest of all time — in the US space program.
With a Ph.D. in biochemistry and two stints as head of space station, Whitson, a former commander of NASA’s astronaut corps, last flew in space in 2017 after completing a 289-day station flight. She never expected to fly in space again.
But after retiring from NASA and joining Houston-based Axiom Space as director of human spaceflight, Whitson, now 63, plans to blast off on his fourth flight Sunday, this time as commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Freedom ».
She is joined by retired businessman, race car driver and adventurer John Shoffner, who serves as co-pilot, and two Saudi Arabian astronauts: F-16 fighter pilot Ali Alqarni and biomedical researcher Rayyanah Barnawi.
“I wanted to be able to fly in space again,” Whitson said in an interview with CBS News, “but the realistic part of Peggy said, no, you probably won’t be able to. And so, it’s just a thrill and a half to have this opportunity to fly for Axiom.”
It is the second “private astronaut mission,” or PAM, to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom and sanctioned by NASA, which seeks to encourage private sector development of low Earth orbit.
Neither SpaceX nor Axiom would say how much the flight cost or how much Shoffner and the Saudi government chipped in for Alqarni and Barnawi. But seats are believed to cost more than $50 million each.
In any case, Alqarni and Barnawi will be the second and third Saudis to fly in space after Sultan Salman Al-Saud flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. They will be the first Saudis to visit the space station, and Barnawi will be the space shuttle Discovery. first Saudi woman to fly in space.
“Research has been my passion in life,” she said at a pre-launch press conference. “I am very happy and honored to be here today representing the Government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Space Commission as the first Saudi female astronaut to go to the International Space Station.
“This is a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams… This is a dream come true for everyone.”
Ascent atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for 5:37 p.m. EST Sunday with a backup launch option at 5:14 p.m. Monday. It will be the tenth piloted flight of a SpaceX Crew Dragon, the California rocket maker’s third non-government mission and the second chartered by Axiom Space.
But as with many afternoon launches this time of year, weather could be a factor with only a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions Sunday, dropping to just a 20 percent “go” on Monday due to expected thunderstorms.
The Ax-2 crew has just two shots to go in May. If weather or other problems keep them on the ground past Monday, the plane could slip into the late summer and fall timeframe due to other launches already planned, more spacewalks and the first pilot flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule in July.
“The schedule is very tight with all the missions launching from different parts of the world,” said Ken Bowersox, director of space operations at NASA. “And it was a real challenge for the team to find this two-day window for the (Ax-2) mission.”
Assuming a launch on time Sunday, Whitson and Shoffner will oversee an automated rendezvous with the space station, capture and move in for docking at the Harmony module’s space-facing port at 9:24 a.m. Monday. For a day-late launch on Monday, docking would be expected around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Each time they arrive, they will be welcomed aboard the station by Expedition 69 commander Sergey Prokopyev and his two Soyuz MS-23 crewmates, Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, along with NASA Crew 6 aviators Steve Bowen, Woody Hoburg, UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev.
During an eight-day stay, Whitson, Shoffner, Alqarni and Barnawi plan to carry out 20 research projects, 14 of them developed by Saudi scientists, ranging from human physiology and cell biology to technology development. Equally important, if not more so: public outreach.
“This is a huge, huge event in Saudi Arabia,” said Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s head of mission integration and operations. “During the time they are docked to the ISS, a whole series of media events are planned.
“One of the focuses of many of these events is interacting with school-age children in Saudi Arabia. And that was one of the reasons, just the timing of the school year, that we’re very interested in getting this flight done in May. They’ve also planned a whole series of events after the flight.”
Barnawi said “we’re here as STEM teachers for the kids to be (attracted) to math and science, technology, to know they can do more.”
Added Alqarni: “We’re going to do three educational and awareness experiments with the kids and it’s going to be a live event, which is going to be amazing for them. It’s going to be a great opportunity to compare the results they had on the ground with the one we will have aboard the ISS.”
One such student experiment: building a kite and comparing how to fly aboard the station in the absence of gravity with how student-built kites fly on Earth.
During the Ax-2 crew’s stay aboard the station, the only area off-limits to the rookies is the Quest airlock, where delicate spacewalk equipment is housed. They will be free to visit the Russian segment at the invitation of the cosmonauts, and they are trained to operate basic equipment without supervision.
“For the galley and the potty, both important functions, they obviously have a tremendous amount of training,” Hassmann said. “But on orbit, when they reach the ISS, the first time they use each of these things, the first time they prepare their meals in the galley, before they use the toilet for the first time, they’re going to get a (briefing) from the ISS crew.”
And they will be able to show their gratitude. Alqarni said he brings Saudi coffee and dates to share with the station staff.
Assuming they launch Sunday as planned, Whitson and his crewmates plan to detach from the space station on May 30 for a fiery dive back to Earth and splash down off the coast of Florida.
The Ax-2 flight is the second private astronaut mission to the station ordered by Axiom, a company led by Mike Suffredini, NASA’s former space station program manager, and other government and private space veterans.
Axiom Space is developing a module that will be attached to the International Space Station over the next few years to serve as a precursor to a standalone commercial space station.
Whitson’s Ax-2 mission, like the 2022 Ax-1 flight before it, is seen as a critical step toward developing the company’s space station, an orbital base that can be used by both public and private astronauts and researchers after the International Space Station is retired at the end of the decade.
“The Ax-2 mission represents the continued progress that NASA and industry are making to build a robust low-Earth orbit commercial economy,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Commercial Development Program.
“The future we envision for low Earth orbit builds on the lessons learned from the ISS along with these private astronaut missions and brings us closer to our goal of public and private astronauts working side by side on commercially owned and operated space stations in the future.”